Sport Specialisation in Young Athletes

The Australasian College of Sport & Exercise Physicians has released a position statement on sport specialisation in young athletes that has many useful guiding principles for adolescent Rowers, their families and Coaches.

Key points from this document for the developing rower and their supporters include:

  • With the exception of rhythmic gymnastics, there is no evidence that early specialisation is beneficial in achieving elite status in sports where peak performance is attained in adulthood [which it is in Rowing]

  • There is evidence that young athletes with overuse injuries are more likely to be highly specialised than uninjured athletes & this risk is independent of age, sex, and total hours of organised sport [overuse are the predominant injuries in rowers]

  • Resistance training among these at-risk populations has been shown to reduce injury risk by up to 68% and improve sport performance and health measures [see GRowingBODIES blog post #8 on if developing rowers should do weights?

  • There is an association between early sport specialisation and a number of more general harms, including lower overall perception of health, early burnout, less fun and reduced mental well-being

The ACSEP therefore recommends:

  • Athletes less than 12 should be encouraged to undertake wide variety of sports and include unstructured play as a form of physical activity
  • Total sport participation hours should not exceed the age of the athlete in years
  • Time spent in organised sport should not exceed a ratio of 2:1 to free play
  • Coaches and parents should ensure that any adolescent program adheres to evidence based sports specific guidelines

The complete document can be found at: screen shot 2019-01-28 at 7.54.53 am


Do Rowers need to do an active warm-up?

It is well know that the best preparation for a training session or competition in sport is for an athlete to prepare themselves with an active warm up.

A comprehensive active warm up will increase the temperature of the body and increase blood flow to the limbs that are about to be used for the specific sport.  It will ensure that joints that are about to be used for the activity are taken through the ranges of motion that they are about to be used in and the muscles about to be used are activated in a similar way to what the sport demands.

An ideal active warm up for rowing may include;

  • 10 minutes of mild to moderate activity that increases body temperature such as stationary cycling, jogging, brisk uphill walking or stair climbing
  • active movement exercises that take the joints through a full range of motion needed for rowing and use the main muscles about to be used when rowing
  • stretches interspersed between active movement exercises to release specific tension or target flexibility deficits that an individual may have
  • a component of ergometer rowing to start getting the mind and body ready for the movement about to be performed
  • It should last 20-25min and result in the athlete reaching a stage of being ‘puffed’ but not exhausted.

HOWEVER… often a great warm up is of absolutely NO BENEFIT to the rower as the gains made are lost due to the TIMING of when it is done.

For an active warm up to be effective, the rower/s should launch their boat within 5 to 10 minutes of finishing it.  Any longer than this and the body will cool down making all of the well planned and performed active warm up a WASTE OF TIME.

We advocate that all rowers complete an active warm up but the following needs to occur for this to be effective;

  • the boat and oars should be ready to go
  • the rower should be dressed in the sports clothing they are about to use (maybe have an extra layer on to begin with that could be easily removed)
  • the rower needs to have everything they are about to take on the water ready to go (stroke coach, water bottle, nutrition, sunglasses, hat etc.)
  • the coach needs to have already conducted the briefing of the session or should do so while the warm up is being conducted

Standing around waiting for rowers to dress, equipment to be organised or coaches to finish briefing athletes results in the benefit of the warm up being lost.

If it is not logistically possible to get on the water within 5 – 10min of doing an active warm up – there is no need to waste anyone’s time.  Warm up slowly and for a longer period on the water!


Push ups – a Christmas gift for rowers!

Young, developing rowers often spend time off the water over Christmas to take a well earned break with families.  In the Australian School Rowing system a moratorium also restricts how much rowing can take place over this time so that everyone can have a holiday.  A break over Christmas is so important for keeping young athletes happy but sometimes this break can inadvertently lead to injury.

A decrease in training load from a break over Christmas is always followed by an increase in load as training recommences.  Often, schools or clubs will hold a camp after the Christmas break and this results in a very steep increase in training load.  A steep increase in training load is a risk factor for overuse injury but a decrease in load followed by a steep increase in load results in a much greater risk – especially in the three to four weeks following the increase in load.  In Australia we see a ‘spike’ in low back pain and chest wall injuries in late January / early February due to the pattern of an unload followed by a significant reload.

How can injury risk be reduced and young, developing rowers still have a family break over Christmas?

There are two ways of reducing this injury risk;

  1. rowers can complete some of their own training over the break period so that the ‘unload’ is not as large
  2. coaches can ensure that rowers are steadily progressed back into training without such a steep load increase when rowing recommences

In the graph below, a typical young Australian rowers training load is depicted with the yellow line.  A more ideal training load is depicted with the green line.

Training load

If rowers are to keep some training going over Christmas, they need to understand that both general fitness training and training that loads the body regions used in rowing are equally as important.  Attention is often paid to continuing T1 and T2 training with cross training such as running or cycling BUT often this results in a reduction in chest wall and low back loading – this can predispose to chest wall injury including; thoracic spine pain, rib stress reaction or rib stress fracture & / OR low back pain when the rower is reloaded in the boat or on the ergometer after a break.

Exercising 3-4 times a week doing activities other than rowing can keep T1 and T2 fitness up over a break.  This might include activities that can be done with the family including bush walking, mountain bike riding, cycling, swimming, surfing or skiing.

To ensure the chest wall and spine are also continued to be loaded, the following suggestion may help;

  • Using a rowing erg two to three times per week, ideally at a high load for a shorter duration with a day between sessions (bones like load then unload for tissue adaptation)
  • Research tells us that posture fatigues at high load on an erg around 30min, if ergometer rowing restricted to 30min or broken into 2 x 15-30min pieces with a short break before continuing, this is ideal

If rowers do not have erg access, other chest wall and low back loading activities can be used, including;

  • Push ups, pull ups and chin ups
  • Weight bearing through straight arms and elbows to do planks with varieties of both hands, one hand, hands stepping up and down onto a step, going from elbows to hands and back down, feet on a fitball walk outs
  • Upper body weights including bench press, bench pull, incline press and rows
  • Squats, deadlifts and steps ups to load the trunk and low back region
  • Ideally, a variety of exercises can be performed –  too much of one exercise can also predispose to other injury.

Performing a 20 minute mini-circuit of a variety exercises x2-3 times per week with at least a day in between is sufficient but does not need to be completed if this can be achieved on an erg.

Coaches that are running camps after a break also need to think of what training load they are prescribing so that the chest wall and low back do not undergo a significant increase in load that may result in injured athletes 3-4 weeks after the initial reloading period.  Way to reduce the injury risk of athletes include;

  • a steady and slow introduction back into the boat and on the erg eg. shorter sessions x3-4 per week with day in between initially
  • keeping the rowing training load increase in time and intensity no more than 10% greater than the week prior
  • ensuring a variety of other activities are also offered at a training camp shortly after a break that do not involve rowing eg. team building, walking, cycling
  • ensuring that sessions at a rowing camp do not include lots of sitting for breaks out on the water, even though the athlete is not rowing, the low back is still loaded in sitting
  • ensure you understand how much individual athletes have trained and kept load on their chest wall and spine over the break – some may be able to do more than others without the risk of injury

ENJOY YOUR CHRISTMAS BREAK!  Be happy to perform some push ups (with some other exercises) every seconds day to keep your chest wall loaded and your trunk muscles strong!  Get your families outside exercising together to keep a smile on everyone’s face and stay injury free through the first two months of 2019.

Preventing injury in the developing rower

GRowingBODIES are combining with Conny Draper, expert Rowing Biomechanist to present a 90 minute symposium on preventing injury in the young developing rower at this weeks 2018 World Rowing Sports Medicine and Science Conference in Berlin.

Our key messages are:

  • Preventing the first episode of low back pain is essential to reducing the prevalence of low back pain at the elite level of the sport
  • Low back pain is endemic in young growing rowers
  • Young male rowers need to be flexible and young female rowers need to have a strong trunk to prevent low back pain
  • Rib stress injury is a season stopping injury in developing young rowers and is under-represented in the current literature
  • Forearm pain in the developing rower is linked to technical, environmental and proximal chain contributors to increased grip force on the oar
  • Knee pain is more common in young than elite rower and can be present anteriorly or posteriorly [at the front or back of the knee]

We look forward to presenting a detailed overview of these topics and more on Thursday to the international rowing community.

How to effectively wash your hands

Hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infections such as the common cold and gastro infections.

“Good” hand washing techniques include using an adequate amount of soap, rubbing the hands together to create friction, and rinsing under running water.

When there is no soap or water available, one alternative is to use hand sanitisers or waterless hand wash.

Hand washing education in a environments such as a rowing club or school:

  • Reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhoea by up to 40%
  • Reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds by up to 20%
  • Reduces absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illness in schoolchildren by 30 – 60%

Great demonstrations on how to wash your hands can be found at:

Stretching your quads for Rowing

There is no doubt that the most dominant muscles used for power through the rowing drive is the quadricep group, located on the front of the thigh.

When young rowers are growing, this muscle can get tight from use but also loses relative length as the long bones grow and the corresponding muscles take time to adapt.

As the name suggests, the quadriceps muscle group is made up of four muscles. One extends over the front of the hip joint and down to the knee cap (the longest muscle). The other 3 extend from further down the thigh bone into the knee cap (the short muscles).

The muscle running over the hip does not need to be flexible to row as it is relaxed over the hip and stretched over the knee at the catch. However, the other three muscles that extend from the thigh to the knee are on full stretch when the rower is compacted with a vertical shin position at the catch.

Rowers need to stretch these shorter muscles with the knee in front of the hip. A traditional quad stretch with the knee under the hip stretches the longer muscle and is less relevant for rowing.

We recommend the following stretches for the adolescent (& every) rower:

If you get knee pain in the seated stretch you should only do the standing stretch.